Oh What A Lovely War
The Florians Theatre
BRINGING Joan Littlewood’s anti-war satire to the Florians’ stage must have required near military discipline of its own.
It is an ambitious project with a cast of 23 telling the story of World War I in almost 40 songs of the era — although some of the best known songs from the conflict, such as It’s A Long Way To Tipperary, Mademoiselle from Armentières and Harry Lauder’s Keep Right On To The End of the Road, do not get a look in.
However, master tactician Trevor Nicol, the production’s director, marshals his troops well, ensuring none go too far over the top.
Because of this, the farce never quite overshadows the horrific tragedy of the slaughter on the Western Front.
That message is reinforced by the projections seen on screen at the side of the stage. These opened the evening by showing members of the cast and crew with photographs of relatives who had served in the war, some of whom did not survive the conflict, and so acknowledging the fact that World War I is not so very far removed from us almost a century later after all.
As the play went on, the screen displayed the human cost of the jingoism that led so many to sign up and the costly tactics of the war of attrition so gleefully pursued by the generals — first day of the Somme, 60,000 casualties, another battle costing 6000 casualties in the space of an hour.
Unfortunately the small stage area meant that some of these statistics were hidden behind members of the cast at certain points, but then again, the live performers always deserved to be the focus.
Each of the amateur cast executed their duties adequately at the very least, which was all the more impressive given the multiple characters each had to play and the great amount of often complicated dialogue they were presented with — including some in French and German.
From this solid base, the show also offered some standout performances, including the slapstick of some new recruits having to deal with the incomprehensible fury of a tyrannical drill sergeant, a vampish Lesley MacLean promising new recuits that I’ll Make A Man of You, and Gerry Sutton movingly subverting a hymn tune into a soldier’s lament with When This Lousy War is Over, while Morag Barron undoubtedly made a better job of the tongue-twisting Sister Susie’s Sewing Shirts for Soldiers than the audience members she challenged to sing along with her.
Written in the 1960s, the script is very much of its time in its view of World War I, holding firmly to the "lions led by donkeys" view of the British army. Field Marshal Haig (Nicholas Nicol) is presented particularly harshly as a religious maniac who believes he has divine justification for the tactics that cost thousands of lives for little gain and who owes his position to his political connections rather than any ability. More recent historians have given a more balanced view of the Edinburgh-born general’s abilities.
For all the talk of England rather than Britain in the script, The Florians present a distinctly Scottish view from the trenches. These are Tam o’ Shanter and Glengarry wearing "Jocks" rather than "Tommies", and there is even time for a spot of sword-dancing — again creating closer ties between the audience and the events in Flanders over a century ago.
It is a long play, however, and perhaps one or two of the sketches could have been lost without damaging either the sheer fun or the poignancy of the show, but full credit to the cast for having the stamina to see it through to the end, especially those troops in their heavy army greatcoats.
That just provides another reason to applaud The Florians’ own war effort with this worthy but always entertaining local contribution to the World War I centenary commemorations.
• Oh What A Lovely War continues at The Florians Theatre, Bught Drive, Inverness, this evening and tomorrow at 7.30pm with a Saturday matinee at 2.30pm.